Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno has been reviewed by many in academia. The debate is over what meaning Melville was trying to publish. Whether or not he wrote Benito Cereno as an abolitionist venture, or if he despised Negroes, is at the forefront of the dispute. Sidney Kaplan takes the opposite position of Joseph Schiffman in his essay Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of “Benito Cereno.” Kaplan writes that Melville utilized color symbolism to signify that black was dire evil and white was pure good, contrary to Melville’s Moby Dick and the review by Schiffman.

With the claim of traditional symbolism, black is evil and white is good, Kaplan goes on in his essay to justify that position. To do this, he reviews several areas of the short story. One such area is the opinion of Captain Delano himself. From the time the good captain boards until his revelation near the end, Benito Cereno is pictured as the “dark Spaniard.” On the other hand, the Negroes are portrayed, at least in Delano’s mind, as more benevolent. Delano admires the “royal spirit” of Atufal, and thinks highly of the degree of servitude Babo provides for Don Benito. However, eventually Delano’s blindness toward the “malign evil in man” is shattered and he begins to see the light. Babo, a black man, seems to signify that “malign evil” whereas Delano shares a more fraternal bond with the “dark Spaniard,” Benito Cereno. The Negroes become “ferocious pirates” and the Spaniards become the victims.

Another topic that Kaplan touches upon is the character of Babo. Melville’s faithful servant, Babo, is actually a ferocious pirate. The white men onboard dreaded his fearless and bloodthirsty ways. The death of the slave trader linked with the inscription “Follow Your Leader” signifies the malign evil of Babo’s nature. Another symbol of Babo’s malevolence is the headpiece on the San Dominick. The figure is depicts a masked dark satyr stepping on the neck of a second writhing, and otherwise repressed, masked figure. This imagery suggests Babo holding Benito Cereno down in submission. Another symbol is seen when Babo attempts to kill Benito Cereno during the escape. Melville writes that Babo “snakishly writhes” during his attempted murder. Kaplan believes that this scene depicts Babo in a certain satanic light.

Melville continues with the traditional symbolism when referring to the Negroes on the ship. Kaplan discusses the scene where Delano boards the San Dominick. Originally, the sky is gray, signifying nothing, no evil, and no good. The ambiguity ends when Melville introduces the ebony boys and girls. These children are “darting in an out of the den’s mouth…like a social circle of bats.” There Melville compares the children to bats, or another sort of animal. He continues by describing the deck of the ship and it being covered with the “dark festoons of sea-grass.” The “dark festoons” refer to the Negroes that have overthrown the white presence.

Kaplan needs to assume several points in order to safely justify the claim that he has made. One assumption is that despite the purpose for the mutiny, Babo’s actions were wrong. Kaplan’s opinion is that Babo was evil. However, Babo did what he did because he lacked freedom and dignity. Babo saw the death of the Spaniards as his escape to a liberated life. On the other side, another assumption is that the Spaniards were lenient slaveholders. Kaplan believes that the Spaniards were first-rate people. However, the question remains about the manner in which they treated their slaves. The Negroes could have been beaten into overthrowing their superiors. However, Melville does not write much about this, instead Kaplan presumes that the Spaniards, being white, were great people, and the negroes, being black, were not great people.

Kaplan claims that the color scheme in Benito Cereno follows traditional symbol patterns, black being bad and white being good. By reviewing several scenes and characters, Kaplan has refuted Schiffman’s view that Benito Cereno follows the color symbolism seen in Moby Dick. However, this is based on the assumption that fighting for freedom is not a justifiable reason to fight. The final analysis of this short story will never be closed, and thus continually open for discussion. An ultimate review lies completely on the reader’s shoulders.

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